New Study Shows Protecting Ecosystems Takes Priority Over Planting Trees For Carbon Storage
Planting trees is a necessity to help remove carbon from the atmosphere. However, it’s not enough. Yes, there has been a lot of awareness around planting trees. Even Elon Musk has been advocating for planting trees. However, a new study has found that protecting ecosystems should be the first priority.
The study, published in Nature, emphasized the need for drastic reductions in emissions along with increased carbon removal from the atmosphere in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The most critical action that needs to be taken is reducing fossil fuel emissions, yet natural climate solutions (NCS) are required to meet that goal.
These include capturing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by protecting existing ecosystems, improving the management of working lands, and restoring natural ecosystems. So, yes, planting trees does help but we especially need to protect the ecosystems that we have instead of destroying them. The authors of the study proposed an NCS Hierarchy as a framework for both the public and private sector decision-makers.
NCS Hierarchy Aligns With Biodiversity Hierarchy
The authors of the study point to a biodiversity hierarchy that was formalized in 2012 as inspiration for the NCS hierarchy. The biodiversity hierarchy focused on mitigating the negative effects of economic development projects on biodiversity and ecosystem services while supporting global biodiversity conservation. The study explained that the first three steps of this hierarchy are:
- Avoid negative impacts on biodiversity.
- Minimize unavoidable impacts.
- Remediate negative impacts by restoring the affected sites or species.
The NCS hierarchy focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or increasing carbon sequestration without negatively affecting biodiversity and human well-being. The NCS hierarchy aligns with the biodiversity hierarchy of the AR3T framework, which is to avoid, reduce, regenerate, restore, and transform.
Why The NCS Hierarchy Is Needed
The study noted that usually, scientists and conservation practitioners often see land-based climate mitigation strategies prioritizing restoration over improved management or protection and gave the following example:
“The Canadian government announced a notable CAN$3.8 billion investment in NCS over the next 10 years, allocating 81% to restoration (that is, planting 2 billion trees), but only 3% to improved land management and 16% to protection.”
The allocation goes against the recent research that suggested protection and improved management NCS offers the most cost-effective options for nature-based climate mitigation in Canada, the study noted. It also pointed out that countries that included the land sector in their contributions to the Paris Agreement often included protection, afforestation, and forest restoration over improving the management of ecosystems. It’s a tilt that is often seen in forest sector commitments.
That’s just the public sector. The private sector is also mentioned and it has similar patterns. There are 93 corporate pledges and among those that provide detail on NCS actions, 78% mention restoration. Only 41% mention protection and just 43% mention improved land management.
The study also found that, in contrast, land sector emissions from corporate supply chains often come from land conversion and management. It’s critical to reduce these activities in order to decrease supply chain climate impacts.
A little over 400 companies promised to remove deforestation from their supply chains. However, the study found that there hasn’t been much progress made on that front. Instead, corporate tree planting commitments have been on the rise.
“Over 400 companies have pledged to remove deforestation from their supply chains, but with little progress to date, and in the meantime there has been a surge of corporate tree-planting commitments. Further, notable corporate commitments have prioritized removals rather than reduced emissions.”
4 Criteria Of The NCS Hierarchy
The study breaks down four interrelated criteria that influence the general order of the NCS hierarchy. They are:
- The size of mitigation potential.
- Time horizon.
Although there are other factors — such as geography, technical constraints, and the availability of ecosystems to conserve and/or manage — there are also more factors, such as policies and regulations that either incentivize or disincentivize NCS adoption. There are also the needs of the local communities, and these will have an impact on the durability of an NCS intervention, the study noted.
Protection, the study emphasized, should be the first priority. It can offer large near-term climate mitigation.
“Ecosystems can rapidly lose carbon when disturbed, such as when forests are harvested or grasslands are tilled for crops. In many cases, it can take decades to centuries for the carbon to recover. Loss of this ‘irrecoverable’ carbon is an effectively permanent debit from the remaining global carbon budget for keeping global warming below catastrophic levels.
“Prioritizing the protection of the irrecoverable carbon stores at risk of disturbance is critical as improved management and restoration NCS will be unable to compensate for this loss on meaningful timescales.”
The study warned that failure to protect native ecosystems can undermine the potential effectiveness of other NCS in the same area.
Improved management is the second priority because of its lower cost mitigation potential than restoration. Alongside commodity production, it can help with mitigation. Improved management of NCS will also come with many benefits such as improving the health of the soil for crops and boosting crop yields. Trees can help protect water quality and provide a habitat for biodiversity.
“We hypothesize that the in situ biodiversity benefits of improved management are smaller than those linked to protection NCS or the restoration of native ecosystems.”
Last but not the least, restoration NCS can help in its own way. It’s not as cost-effective as protection or improved management, but it can offer climate mitigation. The study pointed out that it has the potential to offer high co-benefits, especially in regions that have experienced severe loss and degradation of native vegetation. Other benefits of restoring tree cover include carbon capture, improved air and water quality, and reducing the effects of heat — especially in urban areas. The study isn’t saying to focus on restoration, but that we shouldn’t only focus on restoration. We need to protect what we have while also restoring what we’ve destroyed.
Should we stop planting trees? No, of course not. But we should also stop deforestation. Policymakers, decision-makers, and those who determine that they need to cut down a forest for whatever reasons should stop making that decision. I know it’s profitable to destroy this planet, but what good is money in the bank when we’re all dead because we killed our planet?
You can read the full study in Nature here.
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